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Killing of a Young Woman Grips Iceland

As the disappearance dominated news bulletins across the country, about 775 rescue workers volunteered to search for the missing woman, who had distinctive red hair. Icelandic newspapers and television reported that in her last post on Facebook on Jan. 12, she lamented that it was “two minutes until the worst day of the year,” because “Kiss a Ginger Day” — a day of empowerment for redheads — was nearly over and no one had kissed her.

A few days later, after frantically scouring the Icelandic capital and its surrounding areas for clues, the police found her Doc Martens on a dock at Hafnarfjordur, a sleepy town on the outskirts of Reykjavik known for its annual Viking festival, its local rock ’n’ roll bands and its picturesque lava fields.

After reviewing video from the scene, they noticed something else: a fishing trawler from Greenland, the Polar Nanoq, moored to a nearby dock. Not far from it they spotted a small red car. It was parked there at 6:30 a.m., the surveillance video showed, and it was the same model as the vehicle seen next to Ms. Brjansdottir before she vanished. Tracing the license plate, the police learned that the car had been rented by two men from the trawler.


The disappearance of Birna Brjansdottir dominated news bulletins across Iceland and about 775 rescue workers volunteered to search for her. Credit Reykjavik Metropolitan Police

There was just one problem. The men who were now the prime suspects in Ms. Brjansdottir’s death could be on the ship, but the Polar Nanoq had set off for Greenland days earlier. Fearful that the suspects would get beyond their reach, the Icelandic Coast Guard sent a helicopter with a squad of six special forces officers, known as the Viking Swat Team, to intercept the vessel, a spokesman for the Icelandic Coast Guard, Sveinn Gudmarsson, said.

About 90 minutes later, Mr. Gudmarsson said, the squad — part of the only armed police force in Iceland — rappelled onto the trawler and arrested the two fishermen, who did not resist. He said that the ship was aware “the Vikings” were pursuing them and had already altered course to return to Reykjavik. “The weather was bad and there were eight-meter-high waves,” he said. “The crew cooperated.”

Helgi Gunnlaugsson, a sociology professor at the University of Iceland, said the case had captivated and shocked Icelanders not only because killings were so unusual in Iceland — in 2012 it had the third-lowest murder rate in the world after Liechtenstein and Singapore — but because the suspects were foreigners and the case had seemed such a mystery at first.

Icelanders, for all the lack of violent crime in their homeland, are nevertheless fascinated by it, and crime novelists such as Arnaldur Indridason and Yrsa Sigurdardottir are national treasures. Some Icelanders have drawn parallels between the Brjansdottir case and a popular Icelandic television series called “Trapped,” centering on an unsolved murder mystery in a remote village where residents are cut off by heavy snow. In the series, a mutilated torso is caught in a fishing net and the suspects are thought to reside on a boat.

“Most murder cases in Iceland are not mysteries — the victims and their killers usually know each other, the murderer rarely seeks to cover up the crime, and cases are usually solved quickly,” Mr. Gunnlaugsson said. He added: “Foreign involvement is almost unheard-of. The reaction would be different if the suspects would’ve been two Icelandic boys.”

The killing has spurred soul-searching and mourning in Greenland, an autonomous territory of Denmark that is geographically part of North America but whose majority Inuit people are deeply influenced by Nordic culture and share a similar island mentality and fishing culture with Iceland.

Over the weekend, about 400 Greenlanders braved chilly weather to attend a memorial outside the Icelandic consulate in Nuuk, the country’s capital. The local pastor led hymns as the crowd laid candles on snow drifts around the consulate. Greenland’s foreign minister sent condolences to his Icelandic counterpart.

“The case has dominated headlines in Nuuk, just as it has in Reykjavik,” Petur Asgeirsson, Iceland’s consul general in Nuuk, said in an interview.

Greenland, which has a population of about 58,000 and is the largest island in the world, has no traditional prisons where prisoners are secured under lock and key. It has a progressive attitude toward the rehabilitation of criminals. Rather than being locked up, some convicted rapists, pedophiles and murderers are placed in rehabilitation centers and have the opportunity to walk the streets, though the most dangerous are sent to prison in Denmark.

Sigrun Skaftadottir, a 28-year-old D.J. in Reykjavik, said the killing of a woman in the prime of her life had spooked Icelanders and was already changing the way people behaved, including prompting renewed interest in self-defense classes.

“Girls in my circle are either walking home with someone or taking a taxi, even if they are just traveling a few blocks,” she said. “I can’t stop thinking of all the times I walked home alone in Reykjavik, sometimes drunk, sometimes with music in my ears, engaging with strangers, even inviting random people at the bar to an after-party.”

She added, “Now, I won’t do that again.”

Source: NYT > World

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